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Latin Jazz Conversations: Eddie Palmieri (Part 2)

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The first steps into a career as a bandleader offers a musician a choice—should they follow in the footsteps of their mentors or forge their own path? Retracing the steps of a teacher always serves as the safe route for a new bandleader. They can draw upon what they know, structure their work around defined models, and create a presentation that looks familiar to their audience. In the short term, this might lead to success, but they have a good chance of creating a shallow recreation of early work. Doing something new and creative certainly holds more risks and a greater potential for rejection. An artist is trying something without a proven track record that may lack a connection with the audience. Still, if the artist does make that magical bond with an audience, their music will live long into the future. It's an interesting choice that says a lot about the core of a musician's artistic vision.

When Eddie Palmieri applied his early musical experiences to a career as a bandleader, he did it in the most creative and insightful way possible. Born into a musical world, Palmieri was greatly influenced by New York's vivid Latin music scene, brought to his attention by his brother Charlie. Nine years Eddie's senior, Charlie became a proficient pianist early in his life and found work on the Latin music scene in his teens. As Charlie worked in the Palladium and beyond, Eddie discovered Noro Morales, Machito, Tito Puente, and more. Eddie soon began studying piano, and after a short side journey as a timbalero, he began working professionally in the Latin music world. He spent time in groups led by Eddie Forester, Johnny Següi, and Vicentico Valdes before finding himself in the Palladium with Tito Rodriguez. After two years with Rodriguez, Palmieri was ready to front his own band. After some experimentation, he met Barry Rogers and formed La Perfecta, a group that would blaze trails through the sixties. Their iconic hit “Azucár Pa Ti" showed the power of spontaneity and improvisation within a dance context, raising eyebrows across the Latin dance, jazz, and commercial music worlds. With a cutting edge combination of Latin dance structures and jazz energy, Palmieri and La Perfecta tore up the New York circuit and recorded a string of albums, included two collaborations with West Coast vibraphonist Cal Tjader. By 1969, Rogers had moved onto a career in the jazz world, and Palmieri brought legendary trumpet player “Chocolate" Armenteros into his group. Palmieri dug deeper into jazz through studies with Bob Bianco and eventually started incorporating more jazz harmonies into his recordings. His experimental spirit kept him moving through drastically different projects that always showed a high level of musicality—from the deep groove of Valmanos Pal Monte to the soulful vibe of Harlem River Drive, Palmieri always kept moving down a creative path.

Palmieri stands as one of the most consistently creative and innovative musicians in the Latin Jazz world. From his debut as a band leader with La Perfecta in the sixties, through his cutting edge work in the seventies, Palmieri always kept listeners on the edge of their seats. In Part One of our interview with Palmieri, we looked at the influence of New York's vibrant Latin music scene, the impact of his brother Charlie, and his first gigs as a professional. Today, we dig into the La Perfecta years, Palmieri's collaborations with Tjader, and his unique projects from the seventies.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: After you left Tito Rodriguez, you formed La Perfecta. How did that group come together?

EDDIE PALMIERI: I started experimenting with different kinds of bands, just getting any gigs that we could do, whatever we could find. I always wanted a conjunto with trumpets—I wanted three or four trumpets, that was the style. But the music was certainly changing and the most popular music of the time was the charanga. That was a group with violin, flute, singers, timbales, and conga. My brother formed his charanga and then a gentleman called Johnny Pacheco formed his charanga. Then those were the two main charangas. There was also a dance called la pachanga that was very popular. That was all happening, and I was just looking to see what I could come up with.

Then I met a gentleman named Barry Rogers, and he was a trombone player—that's how it started. I had one trombone and the rhythm section. Then one day we had the flute, played by a gentleman I knew named George Castro. One day I was able to use them both and I knew that was the sound that I was looking for—something completely new and exciting. All we needed was another trombone. We tried different trombonists until we found the Brazilian Jose Rodriguez. That combination which is on the recordings, that's the greatest combination of two trombones that every played music, in my opinion.

LJC: La Perfecta really sounds like a jazz group within a dance context.

EP: Exactly right. We played typical music, but then when we changed to timbales and the flute, then it became the style that was happening—the charanga and the pachanga dance. But with the tone of Latin Jazz, we did compositions like “Azucar." The band was just so open and went into so many different genres, right in front of your eyes. It was an exciting band to see, to hear, and to dance to.

LJC: You guys really stretched out, and you didn't just do that live, you did it on the recordings too.

EP: Right, we changed the whole recording thing. Recordings were two minutes and forty-five seconds. Unless it was a special work like Machito's band had—The Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite—those compositions were long. But for the commercial dance genre, you needed your songs to be two minutes and forty-five seconds so you could have twelve compositions on the LP. That was the deal—you look at those LPs, you see twelve compositions.

When we came to do “Azucar," I told the gentleman that was the A & R man, I said, “Listen, we have a composition that's not going to be two minutes and forty-five seconds." He was the manager of Count Basie, and he was into jazz recordings. He said, “You go ahead and do whatever you want." That's what we did and it came out to eight minutes and thirty seconds. We changed everything around that recording time that ever existed.

LJC: That must have been a big thing for radio play at the time—how did radio guys react to that?

EP: The commercial radio certainly stood away from that composition. The jazz shows played it though. At that time, we had a jazz show that was extremely popular; it started at twelve midnight and it went until five in the morning—that was Symphony Sid's show. Just with Symphony Sid alone, it became a monster, monster hit. Then everybody started to play it, but they would play parts of it and then fade out. Symphony Side would play the whole composition and it became a hit with everyone, particularly the blacks and then the Hispanics. “Azucar" was like the talk of the whole music industry here in New York City. Then it started to spread out little by little—to California, to Puerto Rico, and all that.

LJC: You did two albums during that time with La Perfecta that I love—your collaborations with Cal Tjader, El Sonido Nuevoand Bamboleate.

EP: Cal Tjader came into New York and he was looking for me. I thought that he was just looking for me to record with him, but he wanted to record La Perfecta. That's what we did.

LJC: The two albums seem really different to me—El Sonido Nuevoseems very Cal Tjader influenced and Bamboleatesounds more like La Perfecta.

EP: Yea, we started to stretch it out on that one. He was just amazing, because he never recorded with us! I would lay down all the tracks and leave a spot for him, and then he would come in at night and then do his thing. It was amazing. You listen to it, and you couldn't tell. He freaked everybody out, including me.

But he felt better that way. He said, “Look, if I record with you guys, I'll be in the way. You guys do your thing and just leave me the spots where I'll come and solo. Then we got a deal Eddie." I said, “You got it."

LJC: Did you guys ever perform together?

EP: You know, unfortunately we didn't really perform together. We didn't do any shows on either coast. We really didn't utilize those albums. Promoters didn't get into those two albums the way that they should have. His era, when he was really, really hot was 1957 or 1958 when he took Mongo Santamaria and Wille Bobo from Tito Puente and started to record for Fantasy at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. So he had all those years. Then when we met maybe seven or eight years later, and it was different. He was always popular and he was always Cal Tjader, but it wasn't as strong as he was earlier.

LJC: You mentioned Barry Rogers—he was definitely one of the strongest trombone players in the style. If you could mention a couple of things that made Barry's playing special, what would it be?

EP: He was a great musician. He had a different sound on the trombone because he was self-taught. He played with rhythm and blues bands, he played with jazz bands . . . he loved all types of music. He had recordings of different types of music—African music, Indian music, every different type of music that you could think of, Barry was already into it. When it came to our genre of music, he made a point of being really interested in understanding as much as he could. And he did.

He had been playing Latin music with some other groups within the Bronx, and that's how he met Johnny Pacheco, who played flute. There used to be a jam session In a social club and that is where I met Barry. He was playing there with Pacheco, in the jam session. That's how it started. Barry had already been playing Latin music around, but when he met me, and we got together with the really great Latin players like Manny Oquendo, Tommy Lopez, and Bobby Rodriguez, we went into another level.

He was a great bandstand buddy too. He didn't just play. He tuned the pianos for me. He was a great car mechanic. He rode his motorcycle. He used to work with his father on a sailboat and go sailing. He loved to take pictures of the steam locomotives; he was a great photographer. The guy was out! We had some great years together on the bandstand.

LJC: In the seventies, you did some really interesting albums that were so different from Fania, the boogaloo, and everything else that was happening.

EP: Yea, that was after 1969. In 1969, everything changed. Barry had gone on his way—he wanted to play jazz and so he went with The Brecker Brothers. They used to have a band called Dreams. And he started to do a few other things. I took the trumpet player Chocolate Armenteros—he came in with the one trombone and that band certainly went into the years of the seventies.

LJC: One of the albums that I wanted to ask you about was Superimposition—you've got “Chocolate Ice Cream" on there and “17.5"—great jazz tunes in the context of a dance album.

EP: Right, exactly. I always had that jazz feeling, but by that time, I had already been listening to some jazz recordings from players like Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. Barry took me to Birdland and I saw the original John Coltrane Quartet. Then I thought more about doing jazz and he recommended a teacher for me, Bob Bianco. I started to study and get jazz harmonies. That's why you see some of those harmonic structures were so modern in some of the music that I wrote later on.

LJC: In that same year, you had Vamonos Pa'l Montewith Charlie on organ and you on Fender Rhodes. How did you guys work that out with the two keyboard instruments?

EP: The thing about that composition was making a statement. Nobody knew how great my brother could play organ. So I invited him to the recording and he took one of the most incredible organ solos that will ever be recorded. It will never be matched, never equaled. It was just a classic, classic solo. And the composition became a national hit all over the world. Wherever I went, wherever I played that, Vamonos Pa'l Montewas just a monster hit.

LJC: I also wanted to ask you about Harlem River Drive.

EP: That was Ronnie Cuber that brought me the Aretha Franklin orchestra. The main group was some of the musicians from Aretha Franklin's group like Cornell Dupree on guitar, Gerald Jemmott on bass, Burt Collins on trumpet, Bernard Purdie on drums, and Ronnie Cuber, who was the baritone player. That was to make a statement. We did that on Roulette. Harlem River Driveis constantly brought up—nobody ever really heard Harlem River Driveproperly at the time, and whenever they hear it now, they can't believe it.

LJC: At the time, there was a lot of boogaloo going on, but that never really captured the essence of soul music the way Harlem River Drivedid.

EP: Right. Again, it was one of the most incredible recordings and also a statement about conditions that existed in the lyric content. It's there forever and I'm very proud that we recorded it.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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